Thursday, February 2, 2012

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

Because we had a problem with the book we had picked for February and only three weeks in which to read, Noel Conversations decided to try something different this month: each of us is choosing a book written by an author the group has previously read and we'll see what kind of discussion we can generate.

So, because (as I've mentioned more than once on this blog) I absolutely loved Little Bee, I picked Chris Cleave's first novel, Incendiary. Incendiary is structured as a long letter written to Osama bin Laden by a young working class British woman whose husband and four-year-old son were killed in a terrorist bombing at a soccer match. Even before the bombing, the unnamed narrator was a nervous woman (in part because she spends many hours waiting for her "copper" husband to come home from defusing bombs), who calms herself with such activities as alphabetizing the food in her freezer and having sex with men she meets in bars. In fact, when the fatal bomb goes off, she is watching the soccer match on television while having sex with Jasper, a journalist who lives in an upscale development across the street from her block of flats.

In a panic, the narrator convinces Jasper to drive her to the stadium, where she is seriously injured trying to run into the stadium to search for "her chaps." After two months in the hospital, she returns to her flat and manages to get a job working for the anti-terrorism task force at Scotland Yard (making tea and filing). She becomes involved in an affair with her married supervisor, but Jasper and his "posh" and annoying girlfriend Petra, a style editor at his newspaper, continue to come in and out of her life as well. Both Jasper and the narrator are having serious post-traumatic stress, as is the narrator's lover. When her lover makes a startling revelation, both the narrator and Jasper spiral out of control. I won't say more about the plot because the spiral of surprising and horrifying events is an essential part of the reading experience. I will note, however, that while the book is very dark, there is also humor, as in a scene when the narrator pukes on Prince William's shoes during a hospital visit.

Cleave's novel is certainly a dark exploration of the effects of violence and tragedy on individual lives, but it is also a commentary on class and on how the UK (and by extension the US) response to terrorism has undercut the foundations of our democracies. While not as beautifully written as Little Bee (this narrator lacks Little Bee's lyricism) or as complexly structured, Incendiary is an equally troubling and thought-provoking work. I know I will not soon forget the narrator's pain, even though I don't know her name.

Favorite passages:
I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind.

Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers.

London is a city built on the wreckage of itself Osama. It's had more comebacks that The Evil Dead. It's been flattened by storms and flooded out and rotted with plague. Londoners just took a deep breath and put the kettle on. . . .London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely and I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better. I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.

I know you are a clever man Osama much brighter than me and I know you have a lot of things to get done but you ought to be able to get it done with love that's my whole point. Love is not surrender Osama love is furious and brave and loud you can hear it in the noise my boy is making right now while he plays.

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